Unanswerable questions

Chris Harris

Chris Harris / January 06, 2022

3 min read

While exploring possibilities, I write myself a question I would like answered to guide orientation and action.

But I pause deliberately, apprehending brain cycles from their futile attempts to answer.

"Is this a useful question that I should consider answering?"

Assuming you are not a politician or intentionally concealing information - when should you stop before trying to answer a question?

When the question at hand suggests an untimely, innavigable, or otherwise unsuitable guide to action and/or when the current mode of operation would not be effective at answering.

A Koan (a rhetorical and allegedly apt spiritual guide) is a similar but opposite prompt.

It's the mode of search to a question's answer, that I think is most interesting to consider here.

Posing a practical question is usually to be able to directly act given the result, but some solutions are best found 'indirectly'.

I can identify at least 5 types of indirect search: searching novelty, searching the subconscious, searching the body, searching elsewhere, and not searching at all.

Searching the subconscious

"It'll come to me in a minute" - Some questions need to be forgotten in order to be found:

The conscious mind in tunnel vision can be an overbearing problem solver. The trick is to really release it.

After folding the question up in your physical or metaphorical pocket, experience is allowed to work on it - Once primed, going for a walk, to the bathroom, or resting in a deep relaxation after a workout often allows the more-than-conscious mind the space work it out without 'you'.

Burning or planting your written questions might also work if you're into psycomagic and Vedic sacrafices.

Searching the body

Sometimes the answer requires more body than brain (on the body-brain-continuum), and it might help to close your eyes, and 'listen' to what comes up in feeling-space than in cognitive-space.

Searching Novelty

If 'Greatness Cannot Be Planned'; meaning complex objectives are poorly arrived at by only deconstructing the end goal and formulating a path towards - Novelty Search favours the search of unique and novel behaviours that may not at first seem like anything to do with a solution - but will be important sources of insight and material that when combined, can arrive at a greater result.

Searching a refinement

Ask a better question. The question may be "too big to succeed", or produce an answer that is "not even wrong".

Deliberately not searching

To discard or postpone the original curiosity. Useful when a question is un-answerable given current information at this time and the may answer itself an acceptable amount of time later.

So whether you discard your questions, take them for a walk, feed them to the worms, or abandon them for a more interesting candidate. Rest assured not all questions need answering.

Subscribe to the newsletter

Get occasional summaries from me about planetary intelligence, product engineering and early access to more.